The Girl Who Smiled Beads Summary and Reviews

The Girl Who Smiled Beads

A Story of War and What Comes After

by Clemantine Wamariya

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya X
The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya

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Book Summary

A riveting story of dislocation, survival, and the power of stories to break or save us.

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbors began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were "thunder." In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years wandering through seven African countries, searching for safety—perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive.

When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted asylum in the United States, where she embarked on another journey—to excavate her past and, after years of being made to feel less than human, claim her individuality.

Raw, urgent, and bracingly original, The Girl Who Smiled Beads captures the true costs and aftershocks of war: what is forever destroyed; what can be repaired; the fragility of memory; the disorientation that comes of other people seeing you only as broken—thinking you need, and want, to be saved. But it is about more than the brutality of war. It is about owning your experiences, about the life we create: intricately detailed, painful, beautiful, a work in progress.

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Reviews

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Reader Reviews

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Laurie W. (Fredonia, NY)

The Girl Who Smiled Beads
The title of the book is based on a story that Clementine's nanny, Mukamana, would tell her. It was about a beautiful, magical girl who roamed the earth, smiling beads, and it was her favorite story. How ironic that Clementine ended up roaming the world.

The references to different books throughout the memoir is interesting. Clementine read many she could relate to: Night by Ellie Weisel, Sula by Toni Morrison, Infidel by Ayana Hirsi Ali, The Natural History of Destruction and Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald. Each of these books helped Clementine to feel she wasn't alone in her thoughts and heartaches. So many times as we read a book we can relate to the characters or the situation and feel a little bit better about ourselves and life. It is a comfort to know we are not alone and Clemantine felt the same. Someone finally understood.

One of the most moving passages in the book is found on pages 94-95. It begins "The word genocide cannot tell you how I felt…" Such a moving and heartbreaking excerpt. Her description has remained with me. (The passage was too long to write here.)

I found this book extremely hard to read. The descriptions of Claire's and Clementine's living conditions are beyond my ability to comprehend or even imagine. No human being should be subjected to the circumstances these two girls lived through. This is a book that should be required reading in high school so we never forget what happened and it is never repeated. A 5 star book.

Each stanza of the poem by Maya Angelou, "Still I Rise" was a mantra to Clementine. It is beautiful and fitting. Here is a portion that appears on page 213.

   Did you want to see me broken?

   Bowed head and lowered eyes?

   You may kill me with your hatefulness,
   But still, like air, I'll rise.

Peggy K. (San Diego, CA)

Loss of Identity
This is a breathtaking and heartbreaking novel. It may be hard to understand completely unless you have experienced such a traumatic event but everyone would benefit from reading this tale. Rwanda was and still is a horrific thing. While we may only touch the surface in understanding it can provide one with a window into that world. There are so many questions open to discussion with a book like this and nothing should be taken for granted. Each event like this is different as noted by the author. We cannot compare one tragedy to another but we can learn from discussing what happened here and what has happened elsewhere. Some of us know a little bit about lose of identity but generally it is a small part of our lives . Refugees are an everyday thing in our country now and there isn't much understanding of what it is like to try and survive in these countries. I was very happy that I decided to read it.

Beverly D. (Palm Harbor, FL)

Powerful memoir...a MUST read!
We no longer need to imagine the horrors of the Rwandan genocide; Clementine Wamariya has set it out for us in an astonishingly brutal examination of a life in constant upheaval as a six year old. And all of these experiences formed the amazing woman she has become today, even as she fights with the conflicts she still keeps inside. The writing grabbed me from the first page there was an immediacy and flow to this story; the back and forth from Africa to the U.S. worked well here. The break from despair in Africa (although sometimes joy)melds well with the hope in Chicago (although sometimes despair). A perfect book club selection!

Priscilla M. (Houston, TX)

In search of self in the midst of war
This searing and personal account of the war in Rwanda reveals much more than just a war-torn, conflicted country. It told the story of a child who lost her family, her identity, and her childhood. For six years Clemantine and her sister Claire moved from one refugee camp to another, seeking shelter but finding only hunger, disease, and inhumane treatment. Claire, the oldest child in the family, was already certain of who she was and what she could do. Clemantine was only six, and her reaction to chaos of war was, in her own words, "I was just a feather, molted and mangled, drifting through space." Throughout the book, told in alternating stories of refugee camps in Africa and living as an immigrant in affluent American suburbs as a foster child, the reader comes to realize that even as an adult, successful American citizen, Clemantine has yet to come to a place in her life where all the broken pieces fit together as a whole. Her story is one that is blisteringly ugly and yet at the same time triumphant and proud. This is a must read.

Ariel F. (Madison, WI)

"Everything is yours, everything is not yours".
Memoir about surviving despite many obstacles. I found that the book brought me a range of emotions. I knew something about the Rwanda wars, but this book and the struggles the author and others went thru brought it home.

Why can't we all just get along?

Catherine O. (Altavista, VA)

A Story of Survival
Clemantine Wamariya's book is haunting. At the age of six when our children are enjoying Kindergarten this girl and her sister enter the world of refugees. The beauty of this book is in the simple way she tells her unbelievable journey. She reminds us that millions of Africans have been affected by genocide, she is but one survivor and each survivor has had a different experience.

Clemantine's story pulls you along and surrounds you with strong images from her journey through war torn refugee camps, her attempts to assimilate into the United States, and her visits back to Africa in recent years.

I will be recommending this book to everyone I know who wishes to expand their view of the world. I know my book club will be reading The Girl Who Smiles Beads, it is exactly the type of thought provoking book we enjoy discussing.

...11 more reader reviews

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Author Information

Clemantine Wamariya Author Biography

photo: Julie Zave

Clemantine Wamariya is a storyteller, public speaker, social entrepreneur, and human rights advocate. Born in Kigali, Rwanda, displaced by conflict, Clemantine migrated throughout seven African countries as a child. At age twelve, she was granted asylum in the United States and went on to receive a BA in Comparative Literature from Yale University. Clemantine now uses stories drawn from her experiences to catalyze change and create community. She lives in San Francisco.

Elizabeth Weil is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two daughters.

Author Interview

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